By Samantha Leong
Today we’re pleased to welcome Lisa Yee to the WNDB blog to discuss her book, Maizy Chen’s Last Chance, out now.
Welcome to the Golden Palace!
Maizy has never been to Last Chance, Minnesota . . . until now. Her mom’s plan is just to stay for a couple weeks, until her grandfather gets better. But plans change, and as Maizy spends more time in Last Chance (where she and her family are the only Asian Americans) and at the Golden Palace—the restaurant that’s been in her family for generations—she makes some discoveries. For instance:
- You can tell a LOT about someone by the way they order food.
- And people can surprise you. Sometimes in good ways, sometimes in disappointing ways.
- And the Golden Palace has secrets.
But the more Maizy discovers, the more questions she has. Like, why are her mom and her grandmother always fighting? Who are the people in the photographs on the office wall? And when she discovers that a beloved family treasure has gone missing—and someone has left a racist note—Maizy decides it’s time to find the answers.
Content note: This interview mentions the March 2021 Atlanta spa shootings and anti-Asian racism.
Where did you get the idea for Maizy Chen’s Last Chance?
I had started writing an entirely different novel, but it just wasn’t gelling. Over lunch with my editor and agent, I remember saying, “Well, I just got an idea for something else… give me a day.” I went back and pounded out the synopsis that became Maizy’s story. Maybe it had been rattling around in my brain all along? I don’t really know how these things work. But I do know that when the idea hit me, I just knew I had to write it.
How did you decide on Last Chance, Minnesota, as your setting?
Lucky Chen, Maizy’s great-great-grandfather, left China as a sixteen-year old in the mid-1800s and landed in San Francisco. There, thousands of other Chinese men were working on the railroad. But I wanted to explore isolation and community in an even more foreign setting for Lucky—to really challenge him.
I have been to Minnesota a few times, and there is something about the expanse of land. Plus, in the Midwest, Lucky would really be an anomaly. I was also fascinated by how, in every town, no matter how big or small, there’s always a Chinese restaurant. How did it get there? This is one family’s story.
What was your favorite part about writing Maizy Chen’s Last Chance? What was the most challenging part?
My favorite part was when I finished writing—snort! I was weaving together so many stories, past and present, that I wasn’t sure if I would pull it off. When it finally dawned on me—“I can do this!”—it was such a relief.
Writing this novel was an emotional roller coaster. As I wrote one day, the awful news of the mass murder of Asian women in Atlanta came through the TV, and I broke down. I couldn’t stop crying. Maizy Chen’s Last Chance includes hate crimes against a Chinese family, and fact and fiction began to blur. I felt so unmoored. I wanted to help, but I didn’t know what I could do. Then I realized I could write this story.
You conducted a lot of research for this book, including studying old Chinese restaurant menus at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York, visiting the fortune cookie factory in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and of course, eating a lot of Chinese food! Can you elaborate on your research process? How did you know what information you needed? What challenges did you encounter, and what interesting pieces of information did you learn?
I love research and travel (and eating!). Not to brag, but I use research as a way to procrastinate, and I’ve become extremely good at it. Seriously, though, visiting places and researching really helps my writing process. It makes things real.
I had a loose outline when I went to Minnesota to explore small towns that would have been around during Lucky Chen’s time. In Northfield, I wandered into a museum that was the last bank that Jesse James and his gang robbed. This fascinated me and I wove it into the book, making it a pivotal part of Lucky’s legacy.
One of my favorite elements of this book were the characters and relationships. How did you navigate and highlight the intergenerational relationships and friendships (e.g. Maizy and each of her grandparents, Maizy’s mom and Oma, Opa and Werner) that are so dynamic throughout the book?
Maizy had always admired her best friend Ginger Ortega’s abuela and had never really known her own grandparents. She approached them cautiously and was delighted to find out how funny and vibrant they were—her preconceived notions were proved wrong. The same is true of all the intergenerational relationships in the book. Maizy discovers that hearsay and first impressions are not necessarily the truth. When writing, I approached every character the same way—as multidimensional individuals with their own secrets and stories to tell.
I loved the story-within-a-story that was woven throughout the book. As Lucky’s journey goes on and the past and present begin to converge, we begin to see that the past is not as obsolete as it seems. Why was it important for you to tell Lucky’s story? How did you decide to tell the story this way?
Lucky’s life is the foundation of the book. When Opa, Maizy’s grandfather, begins talking about Lucky, she leans in as one would when hearing an adventure story. But as the tales unfold, Maizy sees elements of the stories in real life—in bullet holes, in faded photos on the walls of The Golden Palace restaurant, and in Bud the Bear, a family mascot. When crimes committed against her family in the past revisit them in the present, she becomes part of the story.
At first, Lucky’s stories were a part of graphic novel that Maizy wrote and illustrated. However, the format wasn’t serving the story, so I rewrote it with Opa sharing the stories with his granddaughter, thus strengthening the family bond.
My maternal grandfather was also a paper son, and it was wonderful to see the history of paper sons included in the story. How did you include the realities of Chinese American history and the fact that racism and anti-immigrant sentiment is still very much present today without letting the story get bogged down by it?
Revise, revise, revise. Cut, cut, cut. The book was so much longer in the early drafts because I packed it with so many issues, attitudes, and aggressions. Then I stepped back and pared it down, putting my trust in the reader and letting a few carefully chosen incidents and actions speak volumes.
What do you hope readers will take away from Maizy Chen’s Last Chance?
This isn’t a book about hate, but rather it’s about hope. It’s funny and sad and warm, and heartfelt. It’s about discovering family—whether you are born into one or find one on your own. I’d love it if it encourages my readers to explore their own life stories and how their families (found or otherwise) came to be.
What is a question you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
I wish someone would ask, “Lisa, you just won the lottery. How will you spend the money?” If not that, then, “What would you like to do when you retire?” My answer would be, “I’d write a book.”
Can you share anything about projects you are currently working on?
I’m told I can’t reveal too much yet, but I am working on something that involves pirates and pastries and ballet and boxing—and crime.
Lisa Yee is the award-winning author of Millicent Min, Girl Genius; Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time; So Totally Emily Ebers; Absolutely Maybe; and many others, including the DC Super Hero Girls novel series and numerous American Girl books. Lisa is a third-generation Chinese American. She says, “I wrote Maizy Chen’s Last Chance as a tribute to my grandparents and to all the immigrants who made the journey to America.” Lisa divides her time between Western Massachusetts and Los Angeles.
Samantha Leong is a Special Sales sales assistant at Ingram Content Group. She has previously interned at Scholastic Library Publishing, Candlewick Press, and Simon and Schuster. Her favorite genre is fantasy, and she loves to bake.